Concluding our Hammer Horror retrospective with a look at the last gasp of the traditional gothic horror and the final chapter in the Frankenstein saga.
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell feel so much like a requiem for the Hammer Horror film that it’s a real pity that it wasn’t the last one that they made during the classic era. It’s a film that mixes the best and worst of Hammer, and despite some efforts to modernise the style – namely with the addition of a lot more gore – it is so inherently old-fashioned and out of time that it is no surprise that the film took over a year to be released. After this, it really did feel as though there was nowhere left for the traditional Hammer film to go.
The film was made in the wake of Hammer’s ill-fated attempt to reboot the Frankenstein film in 1970 with the woefully unfunny black comedy Horror of Frankenstein and it reverts to the style of the original series, with Peter Cushing as Frankenstein and Terence Fisher directing. The Hammer Frankenstein films were not big on continuity and while moments in this film (mostly the fact that Frankenstein’s hands are burned) hint at it being a follow-up to 1969’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, the timeline is very loose – here, we find the Baron locked in an asylum after being found guilty of ‘sorcery’, something that has no connection to any previous movie unless we were to heavily fudge the ending of The Curse of Frankenstein – where Frankenstein is imprisoned, at least. In any case, the film seems to disregard most of the earlier movies, with Frankenstein delighted that he has created a living man “at last”, despite having carried out several rather more successful experiments in other movies. It may be that the Frankenstein of this film is a madman who simply can’t remember what he did before, but that’s a very kind interpretation. A more cynical person might just think that Hammer – or more likely screenwriter Anthony Hinds (under his ‘John Elder’ pseudonym) – just didn’t care about what had gone before.
Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell opens with Dr Simon Helder (Shane Briant), a Frankenstein wannabe, who is arrested after the police find him in possession of stolen corpses and body parts that – by his own admission – he plans to stitch together and bring to life. He finds himself sentenced – for the same crime of sorcery – to the same asylum for the criminally insane that Frankenstein himself was sent to several years earlier and despite claims from the sleazy asylum director Klauss (a magnificently slimy John Stratton) that the Baron had died, he finds that in fact Frankenstein is not only alive but has literally taken over the madhouse and is carrying on his research. This time, his creature is a huge, hulking throwback, – more ape than man – who was originally an inmate who threw himself out of a window and was presumed dead. Why Frankenstein has chosen to use this grotesque body is anyone’s guess, especially as it turns out that he wasn’t dead at all, just badly injured – has the Doctor’s ambition sunk so low that he now plans to cut out the whole ‘bringing life to new creations’ and just wants to transplant limbs and brains? Apparently so. Even so, you can’t help thinking that there must’ve been better bodies available, especially as the inmates here seem to die with increasing regularity, providing hands, eyes and a new brain whenever they are needed. The implication is that Frankenstein is manipulating these deaths, if not actually murdering the inmates – so why he didn’t go for a more human body is anyone’s guess. It made it easier to create a dummy body for the special effects scenes, I guess.
There are a lot of moments in this film that might make you spit out your coffee but the monster is certainly the most significant. This might well be the worst Frankenstein Monster ever seen on film. Quite why all those involved thought that this hairy neanderthal was a good idea is anyone’s guess and – to add insult to injury – the make-up is dreadful. David Prowse, who plays the monster, said it only took thirty minutes to get into costume and all I can think about that is: why so long? It’s literally a bodysuit and a crappy mask and it’s a credit to the rest of the film that the entire project isn’t completely undermined by it.
The cheap and tacky suit is perhaps symbolic of both a company that seemed to no longer be making an effort and a film that has clearly been produced under reduced circumstances. Hammer was renowned for making cheap films look expensive, but not here. The film continually lingers on a blatant, crude model shot of the asylum’s exterior for no good reason and the special effects are mostly pretty poor – a scene where Frankenstein and Simon remove a brain from a dead body is especially bad, with the corpse looking like a plaster model rather than the drained-of-blood dead body that it is presumably supposed to be. There seems to be a ‘that’ll do’ mentality at work for much of the film and that’s a real shame because there is a lot here that is excellent. A terrible film that was never going to be anything else is one thing but a film that has so much potential and then just pisses it away is always much more annoying – you tend to judge a film like that much more harshly than something that is simply awful.
Peter Cushing, looking rather cadaverous, gives it his all and is intense and physical – at one point actually leaping onto a table and fighting the monster as if it was still 1958. In the Dracula films of this era, he looks old and feeble, but here he still seems like someone who could convincingly instil fear in those around him. Similarly, Briant is impressive as the arrogant young man who finally sees that his idol is less than perfect and learns a little humility along the way and Madeline Smith is also good as Sarah, Frankenstein’s mute assistant. It’s interesting to see a Hammer film from the 1970s where the only young woman with any significant part in the film is literally covered from head to toe – no gratuitous nudity or bulging cleavage here. The supporting cast is remarkable and strange – Patrick Troughton briefly pops up at the beginning as a graverobber while Bernard Lee has one scene and no dialogue. The start of 1972 had been difficult for Lee, who lost his wife in a house fire and was then mugged – he turned to drink and almost destroyed his career, so his brief appearance here might have been through necessity rather than choice – certainly, he looks worrying convincing as a broken man. There are also impressive turns from Charles Lloyd-Pack, Phillip Voss, Christopher Cunningham and assorted others as asylum residents, and the actors generally do a fine job of channelling madness without going too far over the top. We have to talk about David Prowse, I guess. I know that he’s a beloved figure and I’m going to make no friends by criticising him – but he’s not really an actor, more a stuntman and he has little opportunity to really do much with this role. The film tries to make the character tragic, and Prowse does his best to be tortured, but the monster suit and mask are so crude that it’s a losing battle. He had, of course, also played a different monster in The Horror of Frankenstein – but while in that he was at least recognisable, here he is so buried beneath the costume that it could be anyone playing the role.
As mentioned earlier, the film is one of Hammer’s goriest and this certainly seems to be a reaction to what was happening in the wider horror world. At times, it becomes needlessly crude – Frankenstein dropping a brain and standing on it is either misplaced comedy (which seems unlikely – if nothing else, this is a very serious film) or unnecessary crassness. The graphic nature of the brain removals, throat gouging, limb stitching and disembowelment is unusual to say the least, as is Terence Fisher’s decision to shoot close-up crash zooms into and out of the gory moments. It’s the sort of thing that critics attack European horror directors of the time for doing but rarely have I seen it done so crudely as here. It’s odd because otherwise, Fisher’s direction is restained and sometimes rather beautiful, with impressive visual compositions with an interesting muted look with a palette of reds and oranges that even extends to the hair colour of the lead characters. Quite why he felt the need to zoom into the gore scenes, then, is anyone’s guess. Maybe he was just following orders.
The most interesting thing about Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, though, is just how tired and defeated it seems. The story itself feels as though it is a bitter and jaded comment on Hammer’s place in the horror world – like Frankenstein himself, the company was by this time desperately trading on past glories, bereft of new ideas, carrying out failed experiments and delusionally looking forward to getting it right ‘next time’. The film ends with Frankenstein’s latest creation destroyed in the most pathetic way possible – torn apart by lunatics while the creators look on helplessly – and the Baron eagerly making plans for the next one, even as Simon and Sarah look on in bemused disbelief. As the camera pulls out through the bars of Frankenstein’s lab and we see him aimlessly sweeping up broken glass, it’s clear that he is every bit as deluded as the other asylum inmate who thinks that he is God. It’s hard to imagine how Hammer could take the character anywhere after this – while other Frankenstein films saw his triumphant escape to create another day or hinted at his brutal demise, this just makes him look sad, tired and pathetic. I’m guessing that everyone involved, somehow or other, knew that this was the end of the line and decided to have one last hurrah with the people who had originally launched the Hammer Horror franchise to begin with. I rather like this ending because it feels like actual closure, unlike Dracula’s throwaway defeat in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. As such, it seems a good point on which to end our Hammer retrospectives. Perhaps – like Hammer, we reserve the right to have a late revival…
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